US President Barack Obama watches as US Secret Service agent Julia Pierson is sworn in as the first woman Director of the service by Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, yesterday.
Washington: When Barack Obama named Julia Pierson as the first female head of the US secret service on Tuesday night, it should have come as no surprise to those who have long recognised that women are making a name for themselves at the head of American law enforcement agencies.
Michele Leonhart was the first to be picked by the president when she was nominated as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in February 2010.
A few months later, Obama nominated Stacia Hylton to take over as director of the US Marshals Service.
Pierson, a secret service veteran who has spent much of her career in Florida, will take on responsibility for the safety of Obama and his family, the vice-president, other leading Washington figures and visiting international dignitaries.
By appointing a woman to lead the 148-year-old service, the White House is sending a pointed message that a macho culture will not be tolerated. The service was badly damaged with revelations last April about preparations for Obama’s trip to Cartagena, Colombia, in which secret service employees, part of an advance team preparing for the president’s arrival, took prostitutes back to their hotel.
Pierson, 53, replaces Mark Sullivan, who retired last month after leading the agency for seven years. He faced heavy criticism on Capitol Hill over the Colombian scandal, for which he apologised while insisting the president’s safety had never been compromised.
The scandal tarnished the agency’s image, which had previously been based on the notion that men were prepared to put their lives on the line to protect the president and others under their watch.
“During the prostitution scandal, the secret service lost the trust of many Americans and failed to live up to the high expectations placed on it,” Republican senator Chuck Grassley said.
“Ms Pierson has a lot of work ahead of her to create a culture that respects the important job the agency is tasked with. I hope she succeeds in restoring lost credibility.”
In announcing her nomination, Obama praised Pierson: “Over her 30 years of experience with the secret service, Julia has consistently exemplified the spirit and dedication the men and women of the service demonstrate every day.”
He added: “Julia has had an exemplary career, and I know these experiences will guide her as she takes on this new challenge to lead the impressive men and women of this important agency.”
As well as its protection duties, the service is also involved in criminal investigations, mainly in the field of counterfeiting, and has 150 offices across the US.
Pierson, originally from Orlando and a graduate of the University of Central Florida, began her career as a police officer in Orlando in 1980, joining the secret service, where she is currently chief of staff, in 1983 in Miami.
Obama said: “Julia is eminently qualified to lead the agency that not only safeguards Americans at major events and secures our financial system, but also protects our leaders and our first families, including my own.”
The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, praised Obama for his “historic decision”.
Sullivan said Pierson would excel in the role. “I have known and worked with Julie for close to 30 years,” he said.
Ralph Basham, a former secret service director, told Reuters: “Julie was selected because she is competent, has been around for 30 years and understands the service well.
“It’s exciting for the secret service to have a female named to that position. My daughter was a secret service agent, so it makes me very proud of the organisation and proud of Julie for attaining that position.”
Of 3,500 special agents in the service, about 10 percent are women, a lower proportion than at other law enforcement agencies. Guardian News